Francis Saili: I want to create a legacy at Munster
Former All Black eager to make his mark before a possible return home
Published 14/11/2015 | 02:30
Just like every young boy in New Zealand, Francis Saili dreamed of one day following in the footsteps of Doug Howlett and becoming an All Black.
What Saili perhaps didn't expect was to follow the legendary winger's path to Munster, at least not this early in his career.
When the 24-year-old centre made his All Blacks debut against Australia two years ago, big things were expected of one of the country's brightest prospects but Saili managed to win just one more cap before his career hit something of a roadblock.
Injury played a major part in Steve Hansen not considering the Auckland native for his World Cup squad and that forced Saili to reassess his options.
Having spent three successful years in Super Rugby with the Blues, he felt it was time for something new and, in his own words, to leave his comfort zone.
There was no shortage of suitors as clubs from both Europe and Japan battled it out for his signature but in the end, a phone call from his idol made up his mind for him.
"When I was in South Africa, Dougie (Howlett) knew that I was having talks with Munster and he gave me a call," Saili recalls.
"Obviously he's Kiwi and I wanted to relate to someone like me who's been here before.
"I used to watch him doing sprint training down at the track. I used to be a snotty-nosed little boy and I used to walk past with my brothers and say, 'Oh man, there's Dougie'. It was crazy.
"Now to be at a club that he was at and to actually converse with him and relate to being Kiwis in Ireland is great. Dougie is the man and he's a legend around here still. He's a real home-town hero."
Saili's knowledge of Munster was limited to the All Blacks' victory in Thomond Park in 2008 and, conveniently enough, he has blocked the 1978 result from his memory.
He was part of an illustrious Baby Blacks team that won the U-20 World Cup in 2011 and played alongside players like Brodie Rettalick, Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett, all of whom played a major role in New Zealand retaining the Webb Ellis trophy.
Saili makes no secret of his desire to one day return home and pull on the famous black jersey again and in many ways his honesty is refreshing.
Watching his former team-mates lift the World Cup wasn't easy and, inevitably, the feelings were bittersweet.
"I was very happy for them but in all honesty, it's a natural feeling to feel like you want to be there too," he admits.
"It gave me goosebumps and it motivated me that at the end of this (two-year spell with Munster), it could be time for me again.
"I sat there and felt to myself that I can go back but at the moment, I'm here and this is my primary task and I'm happy here.
"It's in the back of my head though. Every kid wants to play for the All Blacks. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
"It was a pretty awesome team," he says of the 2011 U-20 side.
"We had like eight or nine of us come out of that team and become All Blacks. It was crazy. To play for the All Blacks is the ultimate goal for all of us."
Saili's deal with Munster is thought to be worth in the region of €1m over two years and although money wasn't the primary motive for joining the southern province, he admits that it did play a part in his decision.
"At the end of the day, money is a big thing and I'm not saying it's a big factor for me, but when the move came about I thought that it was two years away to refresh and work on my game and financially get secured," he maintains.
"Then I'd be able to go back home and live my dream again. That was the process that I went through. I feel like a break for me now will be good but always at the back of my mind I might want to go back home but we'll see what happens.
"I want to be able to live in the moment and I want to help create something at this club and hopefully leave a legacy where we've hopefully won something. This is such a perfect fit for me.
"Like I said, it wasn't all about money but at the end of the day, you have to feel happy and comfortable in your environment.
"You get the best out of a person when you take them out of their comfort zone and that was important for me to challenge myself and get out of home and pause my dream of being an All Black."
Saili's Munster career got off to a false start when he was stretchered off with a head injury in the pre-season game against London Irish.
It was a "scary moment" for him personally but he has bounced back well and has given Munster some much-needed ballast in the centre.
Equally comfortable playing at both 12 and 13, Saili will line up outside Denis Hurley when he makes his European debut against Treviso this evening.
Coming from Super Rugby to the Pro12 brings about its own challenges and Saili insists that the skill levels in the northern hemisphere aren't quite the same as they are down south.
"We (Kiwis) always like to enjoy playing rugby and for me that's my happy place. My happy place is playing on the weekend.
"I would say some things are different to the southern hemisphere. They play an expansive game and the skills aren't quite up there.
"The skill levels around here aren't really up to standard to what I've been playing with and against back home.
"In one sense, it's a good thing because I'm happy to try and give some of my learnings to younger guys and try and help them out as much as I can.
"I love seeing guys coming through the academy. I love seeing them develop and aspire to become a Munster player and wear the jersey.
"I'm more than willing to help them as much I can because they're the next generation coming through and they'll be the ones wearing the jersey."
It remains to be seen if Saili will stay on when his contract ends but Munster supporters will certainly appreciate what he brings to the side while he is here and similarly, he knows what is expected of him.
"I'm very excited to be a part of this new era. I think the thing for us is that it's a clean slate. Last year's team is last year's team," Saili enthuses.
"With all due respect to the Paulie O'Connells and stuff, that was their era but there's a new group coming in now and there are a lot of guys stepping in and starting to lead more.
"With us coming in, and I don't want to say too much about it but for me, the group of boys that are in the team now, we're the ones that are going to be driving this forward. We're pretty much the pilot of this team now."
He has some way to go before replicating what Howlett did for Munster but Saili is determined to create his own legacy.
Munster v Treviso - the key issues
Laying down marker early
Munster must set out their stall early and put Treviso on the back foot. The Italians have shown so often in the past that if they fall behind early, their heads will drop.
Ticket sales have reportedly been going well down south and if Munster can get the crowd behind them, Treviso’s challenge will soon begin to wane.
Munster have already beaten the Pro12’s bottom side earlier this season (18-13) but they struggled for large parts.
There is a fine line between confidence and complacency but Munster know that they are by far the superior team and if they show up, they should comfortably win.
Getting on right side of ref
Matthew Carley’s name won’t be too familiar to many people and indeed it will be the first time that the Englishman has referred Munster.
Carley is largely inexperienced at this level which will pose problems for both sides but if the Munster pack can get on top of Treviso early on, their indiscipline has regularly proven to be their downfall.